The more naive view of westward expansion in the U.S. views it from the standpoint of hearty pioneers risking their lives journeying into unknown wilderness to make a new, better life for themselves and their families.
Cynics point out that many “indigenous” people already lived in these lands and weren’t happy to have those lands dominated by newcomers who felt they could make land their personal property. Most Indian tribal groups had a very different view of land, treating it as though it freely belonged to everyone. So the cynic would say that the pioneers in their westward expansion weren’t expanding into new land: They were conquering and then displacing or killing the original “owners” of the western lands.
Realities of westward expansion complex for both whites and Indians
In reality, neither view is a true depiction of what was happening as European Americans engaged in westward expansion across mountains and prairies, ultimately heading for the Pacific Coast. Reality was more like this:
1. Many perfectly innocent European Americans truly were seeking only a better life for themselves and their families and didn’t have any real concept that “the West” was already occupied. This was mostly true during the early Westward expansions from perhaps the 1790s-1820s. They honestly thought vast stretches of unoccupied lands existed to the West just waiting for whoever would “tame” it or claim it.
2. Most Indian cultures had little or no concept of land “ownership” and were genuinely puzzled by the idea. The earth, the land, and the waters of lakes and streams, were there for anyone to use as needed, not to be contained by fences or cultivated fields.
3. Both number 1 and number 2 are dangerous generalizations of what was going on in the ultimate cultural clash between “Indians” and “white people.” For example, there was no unified view of nature and the land by some unified Indian culture. There were literally hundreds — I think between 200 and 300 at least — of separate, identifiable “tribal cultures,” i.e., groups such as Lakota, Cheyenne, Apache, etc., occupying the territory we can loosely label “the West,” and they generally were as hostile to each other as the “whites” were hostile to any and all of them.
Westward expansion of European Americans, the ancestors of most of us who call ourselves “American” today, was both settlement AND conquest.
But we must not forget, tribal warfare, rivalry, and quest to control land and resources wer very real. There was no homogeneous group or groups of people who were living in some peaceful, beautiful communion with nature and cooperation with each other before the coming of the white man. Aside from some tribal alliances and confederations, there were warring peoples, most of whom considered THEIR group or “tribe” to be real people and others lesser beings to be dominated, enslaved, or even killed. That was not behavior or consequences brought about by white westward expansion — that was the result of universal human behavior and misbehavior that seems common to the human condition in all times and all places.
Some Fascinating Books About the History of the Old West
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